I Recreated a Four-Thousand-Year-Old Ale

A bit of background if you haven’t read my last two posts. I fell down a rabbit hole of epic proportions procrastinating researching cuneiform tablets and their inscriptions on beer. I used the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, which is an internet archive for cuneiform tablets from all over the world. This is an excellent resource and one well worth having a look and search through. I was able to narrow my search to some 155 tablets that discuss beer/ale. The last two posts discuss what I found in the cuneiform tablets and provide some context for my brew. You can find those articles here and here. Again caveat: *While I am a historian, I am not an expert in cuneiform translation or ancient Mesopotamia, so I will be using the translations available on this database. That said, we do know that there is always some debate about translations. However, this database is a trustworthy source.*

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We have come to the final chapter on my Sumerian Ale rabbit hole, the making of the beer. As my previous articles have established, ale was incredibly important in Sumerian culture: one Akkadian text from the Neo-Assyrian period (911-612 BCE), referred to it as ‘the life of mankind’.[1] It was also evident from this text that there may have been different kinds of beer available; it references a ‘beer of red grain I gave them to drink’.[2] Another Akkadian Neo-Assyrian text called the Poor Man of Nippur, referred to letting a person drink third-rate beer.[3] We also have an Akkadian literary curse (Why do you curse me?) from the Neo-Babylonian period, dating to 626-539 BCE, which stated, ‘two jugs of fine beer that is thick I will give you to drink’.[4]  Indeed, there seems to clear indications of not only different types of beer, but of different ranks, with one tablet references that the ‘the first quality beer is not good tasting.’[5] These are but a few of the many, many lists of various kinds of brews.

From an older eras, we see similar variations on ale.[6] A Sumerian text from the Ur III period makes a distinction between wort beer, regular beer, and fine beer.[7] This is not the only one, another one also makes a distinction between regular and fine beer.[8] And this text lists both ‘barley beer’ and high-quality beer’.[9] One tablet from Ur III period, likely from Umma, even refers to beer and beer extract.[10] We also have a handy document from the Old Babylonian Period, which lists four different kinds including a ‘dry beer product’, a ‘diluted beer’, ‘a date-sweetened emmer-beer’, and ‘sweet beer’.[11]

So we know that there are possibly a lot of different kinds of ales floating around in these eras. What follows is my process for brewing a rendition of Sumerian ale. It is an amalgamation of what I have found in these cuneiforms and uses texts from a variety of periods and locations. It is a combination of these literary, administrative, and legal texts that led me to my recipe. What I was aiming to brew in the end was essentially my version of what one Old Babylonian text referred to as a ‘sweetened beer exposed to a lot of sunlight’ made with dates. [12] What I mean by this will be explained in the following overview of my process:

  1. Bappir:

The first step in my process was making bappir, which is often translated as a kind of beer bread.  What exactly bappir was though, is highly contested. However, Peter Damerow argued that bappir was ‘registered instead using capacity measures just as the coarse ground barley’.  Further, he found evidence of bappir being referred to as ‘crushed’.[13] This led me to conclude that bappir might not be exactly a type of bread in our own modern definition, but more like a kind of cracker.

So with this knowledge in mind, I was reminded of how I made malt biscuits for my malt tonic experiment a bit ago and opted to make my bappir in a similar manner. Full details on my malt tonic can be found here.  For my malt tonic, I used a recipe from that was applied for a patent in 1888 by Moses H. Kluber, to whom I am deeply indebted for the foundation of my Sumerian Ale. According to Kluber’s recipe, the first step was to mix the malts together with warm water and let stand for 12 hours. 

For my recipe, I was using wheat and barley. Wheat, in particular emmer wheat, is mentioned repeatedly in lists of types of ale in my study group of 155 cuneiform tablets.[14] References to ‘sweetened beer made with imgaga emmer’[15] and ‘date-sweetened emmer beer’[16] are found throughout the Old Babylonian texts. So for my bappir, I used a blend of wheat and barley malts which I combined with water and let sit overnight.

The next day, the barley had absorbed much of the water and it made it pliable, like a quasi-dough. To this, I added coriander and saffron because The Hymn to Ninkasi stated,

Ninkasi, it is you who handle the…. and dough with a big shovel, mixing, in a pit, the beerbread (bappir)  with sweet aromatics. It is you who bake the beerbread (bappir) in the big oven.[17]

So I added some spices that would have been available at the time and could have found their way into the mix.  Then, I followed Kluber’s recipe again, and smashed it down onto two cookie baking sheets and baked until it was ‘hard and brown’.  Baked these low and slow and ta dah! Beer crackers! Or Bappir as the case may be. They are actually quite nice to just snack on tbh.

  • Mashing:

And now the brew begins. As for mashing, some scholars argue that cold mashing was the case and thus this concept informs their recipes for Sumerian ale. Experiments from this perspective usually involve just letting malt soak in water as their ‘mashing in’ process. Or, mashing in at a lower temperature such as 34 degrees for 15 minutes.[18] This results in a low or non-alcoholic beverage. Many scholars have contended that because Sumerian ale was consumed as part of diet that this meant this daily brew was lower in alcohol, to the point of being non-alcoholic by our modern beer standards; though many argue that this was simply a kind of ale that could have been produced, and not the entirety of the brewing industry. It does seem to be that when experiments are conducted regarding Sumerian Ale that they are aiming to make a low or non-alcoholic brew and seem to place other higher-strength beers as exceptions. This mirrors the arguments regarding the strengths of medieval ales and beers. It is likely that a range of alcoholic content brews existed, but we know people drank to get drunk. As they always have. 

And there is certainly evidence for this in Sumerian culture. We have insults involving drinking parties:

After you go to the house of a man (giving) a drinking party for a god(?)

After you enter behind the man of the drinking party

Beer foam is to be spattered upon you

After you set your neck upon the ground (Akk. you bow down)

Your own self, which (is so drunk) does not (even) know (how to use?) a hand, is denigrated. [19]

If all of these brews were all around 1% or less, getting drunk would be nigh on impossible. Further examples of intoxication are found in a drinking song:

I will have the cupbearers, the boys and the brewers stand by.

As I spin around the lake of drinks,

while feeling wonderful, feeling wonderful,

while drinking beer, in a blissful mood,

while drinking alcohol and feeling exhilarated,

my stomach is a heart stomach with joy!

I clothe my contented liver in a garment fit for a queen![20]

This sounds like a bit of tipsy good time to me. And there’s even an ale festival, but of course ale doesn’t have to be alcoholic to enjoy at a festival.[21] However, there are certainly attested to negative qualities one can engage in when drinking, accordingly, an Old Babylonian text from Ur declared ‘when he drinks beer, slander is uttered’.[22] So it seems to me that while a low ABV ale was available, ales were also used to get intoxicated. So based on all of this, I knew I was not going to do a so-called cold mash simply because it does not provide the saccharification necessary to make an alcoholic ale. Here is an excellent study as to why is does not work in this way: https://steinzeitbier.wordpress.com/2017/10/25/cold-conversion-does-not-work/amp/

As Merryn Dineley so eloquently said,

‘One of the common myths about the origins of beer thousands of years ago is that grain was perhaps left in a container, it got wet and, somehow, turned into beer. This is impossible. The conditions for making malt and malt sugars do not exist in this situation’. [23]

So a hot mash it was. I went with about 67 degrees for 1.5 hours but did not monitor temperature much because I wanted to make the least use of modern tools possible. I used about 50% bappir, 25% wheat, 25% barley blend. I also added dates and covered with much more water than a modern brew, about 2.5 times the amount, because I would not be sparging. I also added dates in there because as we saw earlier date ale was common. Additionally, after the mashing was complete, I quickly mixed in an entire bottle of date syrup. The Sumerian god Enki is shown mixing date syrup in with his ale to make it stronger.[24] So I decided I was going to make Enki’s Ale, and it was going to be strong! I almost forgot to say that I added more coriander and saffron to the mash. And our base was done. No sparging, no boil. On to fermentation.

3. Fermentation:

              To filter or not to filter, that was the question. I turned to this from the Hymn to Ninkasi as a starting point:

Ninkasi, you place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound,

appropriately on top of a large collector vat.

It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat;

it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates. [25]

I think this sounds like the beer is filtered in the collector vat, after fermentation. At least that is what I am going with. I decided to ferment by ale on grain, as least somewhat. I used about a two-three inch layer of the grain at the bottom of my fermentation jug. I was first heard of the possibility of fermenting on grain in part in a conversation with Merryn Dineley and @geofflath talking about fermented mashes. Merryn has made several Sumerian ales and I highly recommend reading any and all of her experiments, and frankly anything that she has written. Here are two to get you started. and her husband Graham who is also a phenomenal brewer made one using meadowsweet and here is a link to his experiment:

              So I decided to ferment on grain. And then it was time to chose what yeast to use. I did let my wort cool naturally and, therefore, slowly. I knew this would expose it to bacteria and natural yeasts, but I anticipated that as it was necessary to preserve some historical accuracy. As for what yeast I pitched? I went with kveik. Why? Because of the following lines:

18. {kasz}dida u4 tab-ba
en: sweetened beer exposed to a lot of sunlight?
19. {kasz}dida u4 sal-la#
en: sweetened beer exposed to a little sunlight? [26]

This was not the only mention of ale being exposed to sunlight. Another Old Babylonian text from Nippur had two different kinds of ale one being ‘exposed to narrow sunlight’ and another ‘exposed to double sunlight’. [27] Because of course the fermentation jugs were opaque this sounded like references to increased fermentation temperature. Something which would affect a yeast like kveik.  So kveik it was. Not only that, but I decided to test this sunlight use. So I wrapped my jug in my black Metalman hoodie and shoved it into direct sunlight. I left the brew to ferment for a week. And, voila, we have what I call Enki’s Ale.

Results:

To be honest, I was expecting this to not be super great based on some other peoples experiences with their brews. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it.

Aroma: Initial nose was sweet and malty. Heavy notes of dark fruit, likely from all the dates! Also some tartness, but not sour. Dark fruity notes dominate everything. But there is some bready malt character.

Appearance: cloudy rich brown colour. Tawny was the word that came to mind when I was looking at it. It is not filtered so cloudy af. It is opaque. Colour likely has a lot to do with all the date syrup.

Carb: Low carbonation with a very full mouthfeel. Bit of alcohol warmth on the finish. It is a wee bit boozy, as expected when using a kveik, so perhaps my theory with sunlight and increased fermentation temperature helped this along

Flavour: Lots of dark fruit at initial taste, then a bit of bready malt with some tartness that balances the sweetness of the dates. There is some diacetyl slickness on the palate. A very, very dry finish along with that alcoholic warmth.

Overall Impression: reminds me of a cross between an Oud Bruin and a Barley Wine tbh.

In conclusion, I had so much fun researching and writing about Sumerian ale for the past month or so. I really enjoyed brewing this beer and will likely make it again in the future. I am going to finish up my Sumerian research rabbit hole by using this beer to make an ancient Sumerian dinner dish and then move on to my next project. Thanks so much for reading!


[1] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P491222

[2] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P491222

[3] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P499186

[4] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P499718

[5] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P261018

[6] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P469517

[7] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P112258

[8] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P427678

[9] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P449048

[10] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P464339

[11] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P229672

[12] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P227657

[13] https://cdli.ucla.edu/pubs/cdlj/2012/cdlj2012_002.html

[14] See for example: https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P227657

[15] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P227657

[16]https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P229672

[17] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P478928

[18] https://cdli.ucla.edu/pubs/cdlj/2012/cdlj2012_002.html

[19] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P346241

[20] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P478968

[21] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P118388

[22] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P346671

[23] https://exarc.net/issue-2021-2/at/ancient-magic-malt-making

[24] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P469517

[25] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P478928

[26] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P227657

[27] https://cdli.ucla.edu/search/archival_view.php?ObjectID=P229352